The abstraction of death is understandably popular. There is no reality like mortality, and we shrink from it as instinctually as we cover our ears in an explosion. The realest moment in my relatively short life was watching one of my friends at the moment of his death: a man younger than I, his throat engorged with plastic tubing, his hands pale and blue, sweat--even then--running down his neck to a pool on his chest. Watching that moment, actually being there at the very second another human being ceases to be, is ineffable and unforgettable. It changes you.
Your mind, weirdly enough, is captured by detail. We expect death to be magnificent or elevated. But we discover it to be as banal in detail as life. Someone's hair is messy. His nails need clipping. Can someone turn down that light? But it is detail that makes sense of it, proving that this life was real, like yours and mine, and that it will end. One of George Orwell's classic pieces of reportage, "A Hanging," written about an execution in Burma in 1931, is the best literary evocation I know of this. He witnessed, indeed helped perform, a routine execution of a routine criminal, a wiry little man with a huge mustache, an almost cartoonish figure in his miserable cell. Orwell watched as, on the morning of this criminal's death, the man was chained, gripped by his guards, and led through a grimy courtyard to the scaffold. "At each step," Orwell wrote, "his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path."
For Orwell, that tiny movement opened up a world of thought. "It is curious," he noted, "but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.... His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned--reasoned even about puddles." If it took this almost absurd moment to alert Orwell to the horror of state-sanctioned murder, what, one wonders, would it take for us?
I'm reminded of this by the current debate about whether the execution of Timothy McVeigh, scheduled for May 16, should be televised. Attorney General John Ashcroft has ruled that it will be shown on closed-circuit television to the families of the dozens of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, but almost everyone else will be forbidden to see it. This is a curious enough arrangement, but, in our transparent media culture, it is truly bizarre. Television now shows people chained to one another for days on end, negotiating sexual intercourse; it drags cameras into police swoops against wife-beaters and drug-dealers; we see trials in all their minutiae; we watch tapes from closed-circuit cameras filming bank robbers and convenience-store thieves; we saw a president of the United States testify under oath about oral sex. But a public execution of a criminal responsible for one of the most heinous mass murders in recent history is out of bounds.
It would, we are told, turn McVeigh into a martyr. How? The only people even faintly predisposed to see this gawky coward as a hero will doubtless use the execution to support their deranged politics anyway--broadcast or not. No one else will be under any illusions about the gravity of the crime this man committed, and if people feel anything as his body twists in a final convulsion, it will surely be pity rather than admiration. Is it pity the authorities wish to prevent us from feeling? Perhaps compassionate conservatism has a few exceptions we should be more aware of.
Others worry about the opposite reaction: bloodthirsty satisfaction at justice being done. So be it. If supporters of the death penalty were more honest, they would fess up to the fact that part of the rationale for it is revenge. That, after all, is why the families of the victims have been allowed access. The fashionable term for this is to help those families achieve "closure." But for that they could witness McVeigh's funeral or burial. The point of their witnessing his final agony is obviously vengeance--the ultimate form of closure. But if the families get to experience this, why not everyone else? This was an act of terror, designed to spread fear beyond the victims and their families. Surely the terrorized deserve the full experience of vengeance as well.
The arrangement is also a curious solution for those who believe the death penalty is, above all, a deterrent. If it is designed to deter, wouldn't it be more effective if evidence of it were more widely disseminated? If this brutal form of punishment, abandoned in most civilized countries, is an instrument of intimidation, it makes no sense to hide it from view. In fact, invisible "public" executions are almost an oxymoron. They obscure what they are designed to illuminate.
And illumination is the point. Each year, Americans endorse and tolerate dozens of state-sanctioned executions. Each one of the condemned is a human being--breathing, thinking, and feeling until the final moment of terror. A society that accepts this but will not witness it is deeply cowardly. In fact, no moral argument in defense of the death penalty is, to my mind, plausible unless an individual is prepared to witness the death he has endorsed. Being somewhere else when the trigger is pulled is a form of denial, of moral escapism. The taking of a human life is not, after all, a trivial matter. It is the most profound act any human being can commit. To sanction it blithely, to acquiesce in it easily, to endorse it but not confront it, constitutes moral abdication. This is true for every citizen in a society that murders its murderers, but it is especially true of those in public office who sign the death warrants and campaign for office on the issue. I wish Arkansas's then Governor Bill Clinton had possessed the fortitude to witness the execution of the mentally handicapped man he had executed while campaigning for the presidency. And I wish even more that our current president, who has the gall to give speeches about the "culture of life," had witnessed any one of the dozens of deaths he has personally sanctioned and once even joked about.
I bet he couldn't stomach it, and neither could we. Imagine if every execution were broadcast live on the Internet. There would be plenty of fans, of course, and plenty of gallows groupies. You only have to look at those grim historical photographs of white Southerners grinning and posing and exchanging small talk while a lynched Negro hangs nearby to see how easily we can be inured to evil. But, at the same time, if those pictures had never been taken, we wouldn't today be able to confront the moral choices that our predecessors once made. Denial and abstraction would have prevailed. Again, it is the confrontation with the visual and sensual details of killing that keeps us morally alert. That is why it is so important to keep images and even artifacts of the Holocaust, of slavery, of war. Sometimes it takes an odd piece of clothing, a discarded pair of spectacles, the avoidance of a puddle, to make us fully absorb what it is that we do. And if we cannot face what we do, what possible moral rationale do we have to continue doing it?
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